In the messdeck of HMS Marlborough, opinions were readily expressed – and rarely did they agree. But there was one thing Kevin "Snowy" Winter and his shipmates were convinced of – to a man. "Women at sea?" they mused. "Nah, never work."
The mess deck views of Snowy and his shipmates were prevalent in the late '80s and early '90s. Visiting warships, Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton (today Lord Hamilton) found officers fairly receptive to the idea of women going to sea.
"As you moved down the ranks, they got more and more reactionary," he remembers. "When you got to the junior ranks' mess they thought the whole thing was an absolutely outrageous idea."
Equality laws and growing political correctness might have tackled such trenchant opinions, but the driving force behind the MP's decision in February 1990 was a lack of good men:
"We just didn't have the right calibre of men coming forward – and we had very good women we were turning away. This always struck me as lunacy," said Lord Hamilton.
His announcement provoked a bulging postbag at Navy News:
"At long last," declared one retired Wren.
A Second World War veteran shook his head:
"Consider the harsh, brutal realities of war at sea."
And in Hong Kong a wag put pen to paper:
"The size of hatches is not sufficient to accommodate the average Wren."
Naval wives were among the strongest opponents of women going to sea. They protested on the streets of Portsmouth and Plymouth, carrying banners warning of higher divorce rates and broken marriages:
"Putting Wrens on board is like putting a match to a gasoline station," claimed one Gosport naval wife.
A decade and a half later Sophie Shaughnessy frets when her husband Lieutenant Commander Toby Shaughnessy puts to sea in a mixed ship:
"I know it's stupid, because we trust each other completely," she says. "I always prefer it, though, when he's on an all-male ship."
And Toby Shaughnessy in turn probably has mixed feelings. For Sophie Shaughnessy is a Lieutenant Commander (most recently she served in HMS Grafton), and, as she readily admits:
"I'm normally on a ship with far more men than he is women."
That is not to say that mixing men and women in the confines of a warship does not lead to relationships:
"They're fairly common, and not normally frowned upon too much unless, say, one of them is a boss of the other," says Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic Mark Lock, who went out with a shipmate from a different section.
He also abided by the "no touching" rule:
"I didn't see there was a problem with it and no-one else had a problem with me."
The leading hand did, however, notice some behavioural changes among some of his male shipmates:
"If people were on watch with a female and it was midnight, they would still turn up with aftershave on. Obviously it wouldn't happen on an all-male ship," he says.
For those dyed-in-the-wool matelots who just could not accept women at sea, Leading Writer Jackson had the answer:
"There were some quite sexist jokes said in front of me – to see if I'd react," she says. "In the end I'd just tell a dirtier joke. I just had to fight fire with fire. And I won."
After a decade of women going to sea, such attitudes are disappearing fast, or have vanished entirely – from the RN, at any rate, but not from society:
"Even now at any cocktail party or social event, the first question you're asked is: 'what's it like to be a woman at sea?'" says Lieutenant Commander Shaughnessy. "It's still seen as a novelty by some people who aren't in the services."
And it's still seen as a novelty by Fleet Street. Lieutenant Commander Charlie Atkinson was the first female CO of a minehunter:
"It caused a little bit of a media flurry," she said.
Former Commander-in-Chief Fleet Admiral Sir Peter Abbott would certainly like to see more women follow in her footsteps – and beyond:
"There aren't enough senior officers yet who are female – you can count them on the fingers of one hand," he says. "They haven't got to admiral yet, but that's a question of time."
Seventeen years on from his momentous decision, Lord Hamilton is convinced he made the correct call:
"It must be right to give women the opportunity to serve in any walk of life that they want to where they can make a decent job of it," he says.
And Snowy Winter? Have his opinions changed in 17 years?
"I don't think anyone bats an eyelid any more," the warrant officer says. "It doesn't matter what sex you are; it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is: you've got a job to do in the Navy. As long as you can do the job, that's what matters."
You can listen to the interviews at www.seayourhistory.org.uk in the oral gallery.
This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Navy News, the newspaper of the Royal Navy.